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Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

The United Kingdom is getting a lot of attention because voters just chose to leave the European Union.

I think this was the smart choice. Yes, there will be some short-run economic volatility, but the long-run benefits should make it worthwhile. Sort of like chemotherapy being painful, but still being much better than the alternative of cancer.

My main argument for Brexit was that the European Union is a sinking ship. The continent is in trouble because the bureaucrats in Brussels reflexively support centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization. And it’s in trouble because most member governments support dirigiste policies on the national level.

Consider France. The country is so statist that even some folks from the establishment media have warned that government has too much power. Heck, even some of the people at the European Commission have complained that taxes are too high.

Perhaps most miraculously, there was even a column in the New York Times last month explaining how bad government policy is killing France’s job market.

It’s obvious that the current system isn’t working. …business owners are reluctant to hire employees, because it’s so complicated and expensive to fire them when times are bad. …times are pretty bad: France has 10 percent unemployment, roughly twice the levels in Germany and Britain. For young people, it’s around 24 percent. …While many other European countries have revamped their workplace rules, France has barely budged.

The most important thing to understand is that employers are extremely reluctant to hire full-time workers because it’s nearly impossible to fire them if they don’t do a good job or if the company hits hard times. And that translates into temporary jobs combined with lots of unemployment.

The Hollande government has proposed to tinker with this system.

The new labor bill — weakened after long negotiations — wouldn’t alter the bifurcated system, in which workers either get a permanent contract called a “contrat à durée indéterminée,” known as a C.D.I., or a short-term contract that can be renewed only once or twice. Almost all new jobs have the latter.

But even though the reforms are very timid, the French are protesting.

…it isn’t just unions that oppose the bill. So do more than 60 percent of the population, who fear the bill would strip workers of protections without fixing the problem. Young people took to the streets to oppose it, demanding C.D.I.s, too. Why are the French so wedded to a failing system? …they believe that a job is a basic right — guaranteed in the preamble to their Constitution — and that making it easier to fire people is an affront to that. Without a C.D.I., you’re considered naked before the indifferent forces of capitalism. …young protesters held a banner warning that they were the “génération précaire.”

Here’s the most amazing part of the story. The protesters think that a government-protected job is a rite of passage into adulthood. They want the “right to grow up,” even though their version of adulthood involves complete blindness to economic reality.

They were agitating for the right to grow up. …getting a permanent work contract is a rite of adulthood. Without one, it’s hard to get a mortgage or car loan, or rent an apartment. Mainstream economic arguments can’t compete. “Basic facts of economic science are completely dismissed,” said Étienne Wasmer, a labor economist at Sciences Po. “People don’t see that if you let employers take risks, they’ll hire more people.” Instead, many French people view the workplace as a zero-sum battle between workers and bosses.

The obvious answer is to dramatically reduce government intervention in labor markets. But since that’s a near impossibility in France, high levels of joblessness almost surely will continue and short-term employment contracts will be the norm for those who do manage to find work.

By the way, the system doesn’t even work that well for the workers with the government-protected positions.

Many workers here have permanent contracts that make it very hard to fire them. So some companies resort to an illegal strategy: They try to make someone so miserable, he’ll quit. “What happens next is, I’ll lose my team and my staff, and therefore I’ll have nothing to do,” the man predicted. “You still have to come to work every day, but you have no idea why.” …those lucky enough to have C.D.I.s can struggle at work. In one study, workers with C.D.I.s reported more stress than those with short-term contracts, in part because they felt trapped in their jobs. After all, where else would they get another permanent contract?

No wonder so many people in France want to work for the government. That way they can get lavish pay and benefits with very little pressure to perform.

In any case, the net result is that the French economy is stagnant. Potentially valuable labor (one of the two factors of production) is being sidelined or misallocated.

Writing for Market Watch, Diana Furchtgott-Roth shares her analysis of crazy French labor law.

…reforms are vital because the French economy is stagnant. GDP growth for the latest quarter was 0.6%. Over the past decade, growth has rarely risen above 1%. The unemployment rate is over 10% and the youth unemployment is 25%. Clearly tax and regulatory reform, including more labor flexibility, are needed to encourage employers to hire. …a French court this week ruled that Société Générale rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel, who lost $5.5 billion of the bank’s assets in 2008 and almost caused its bankruptcy, had been unfairly dismissed. Société Générale was ordered to pay Kerviel $511,000 because it decided he was dismissed “without cause.” …When employers cannot fire workers, they are less likely to hire them, leading to a sclerotic labor market and high unemployment. This is what the left-wing Hollande is trying to repair. …Some view France as a worker’s paradise where the government protects workers from abusive employers. The reality is that France is a worker’s nightmare where jobs are scarce and work ethic is prohibited by law.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is even more negative in his column for the U.K.-based Telegraph.

An intractable economic crisis has been eating away at the legitimacy of the French governing elites for much of this decade. This has now combined with a collapse in the credibility of the government, and mounting anger… The revolt comes as Paris battles a wave of protest against labour reform, a push that has come close to rupturing the Socialist Party. The measures were rammed through by decree to avoid a vote. Scenes of guerrilla warfare with police on French streets have been a public relations disaster… Rail workers are demanding a maximum 32-hour week. Eric Dor from the IESEG School of Management in Lille says powerful vested interests have made France almost unreformable. …Dor said the labour reforms have been watered down and are a far cry from the Hartz IV laws in Germany in 2004, which made it easier to fire workers and screw down wages.

He points out that the damage of labor-market intervention is exacerbated by a wretched tax system (I’ve written that the national sport of France is taxation rather than soccer).

France’s social model is funded by punitively high taxes on labour. The unintended effect is to create a destructive ‘tax wedge’ that makes it too costly to hire new workers. It protects incumbents but penalizes outsiders, leading to a blighted banlieu culture of mass youth unemployment. There are 360 separate taxes, with 470 tax loopholes. The labour code has tripled… Public spending is 57pc of GDP, a Nordic level without Danish or Swedish levels of labour flexibility. Unemployment is still 10.2pc even at this late stage of the global cycle.

Given the various ways that government discourages employment, is anyone surprised that the French work less than any other nation in Europe? Here’s a blurb from a report in the EU Observer.

French put in the least working hours in the EU, according to the bloc’s statistical office Eurostat. Full-time workers in France clocked up 1,646 hours of labour last year.

By the way, there’s a tiny possibility of change.

There’s an election next year and one of the candidates has a platform that sounds vaguely like he wants to be the Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher of France.

Here are some of the details from a report by Reuters.

French presidential hopeful Alain Juppe, the frontrunner in opinion polls 20 years after serving as a deeply unpopular prime minister, said on Tuesday he would roll back France’s iconic 35-hour working week and scrap a wealth tax if elected next year. In the mid-1990s Juppe triggered France’s worst unrest in decades because he would not budge on pension reforms. He eventually had to drop them after weeks of strikes and protests. …”The French are being kept from working by excessive labor costs. I want to cut those costs,” Juppe told hundreds of supporters as he outlined his economic platform. …Juppe said he would raise the retirement age to 65 from 62 while cutting both taxes and state spending. Juppe said he would aim to cut public spending by 80-100 billion euros over five years and to reduce payroll taxes by 10 billion euros and corporate taxes by 11 billion euros. …Juppe also said he would cap welfare subsidies.

Amazingly, Juppe is the favorite according to the polling data.

So maybe French voters finally realize (notwithstanding the bad advice of Paul Krugman) that becoming another Greece isn’t a good idea.

P.S. My “Frexit” title simply recognizes the reality – as shown in this video – that productive people already are fleeing France. Hollande’s punitive tax policy has driven many of them to other nations. French entrepreneurs in particular have flocked to London.

P.P.S. Watch Will Smith’s reaction after being told France has a top tax rate of 75 percent.

P.P.P.S. France’s effective tax rate actually climbed to more than 100 percent, though Hollande mercifully decided that taxpayers now should never have to pay more than 80 percent of their income to government.

P.P.P.P.S. The big puzzle is why the French put up with so much statism. Polling data from both 2010 and 2013 shows strong support for smaller government, and an astounding 52 percent of French citizens said they would consider moving to the United States if they got the opportunity. So why, then, have they elected statists such as Sarkozy and Hollande?!?

P.P.P.P.P.S. In my humble opinion, the most powerful comparison is between France and Switzerland.

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It sounds arcane and pedantic, but the United States has a democratic system of government but is not (or at least was not) designed to be a democracy.

A democracy implies that 51 percent of the people have the power to elect a government with unlimited powers to exploit 49 percent of the people.

The United States instead is a constitutional republic. That means very clear limits on the power of government. And very clear limits, as George Will has properly explained and E.J. Dionne never learned, on democracy.

The bad news is that constitutional limits on the size and power of government have been eroding. The drift in the wrong direction began with Woodrow Wilson and the so-called progressives, accelerated during the New Deal (ratified by the horrible Supreme Court decision in Wickard v. Filburn), and has intermittently continued in the post-World War II era.

The laughable news (in a sad way) is that some politicians are willing to openly display their ignorance on these matters.

The Washington Examiner reports on (what has to be) the year’s most remarkable example of historical and legal illiteracy.

A House Democrat said Wednesday that it “really bothers me” when people claim the U.S. Constitution was designed to limit the federal government’s power. …Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the founding document of the U.S. was designed for the “opposite” purpose. …”The Constitution was enacted to strengthen government power to enable central government to lay taxes and to function effectively…” said Nadler.

Wow.

Talk about claiming that night is day and up is down.

Let’s look at the actual document. Article II of the Constitution makes the President the nation’s Commander-in-Chief, which obviously is important, but otherwise limits the office to an administrator role.

All law-making power is granted to Congress.

And if you read Article 1 of the Constitution, specifically the enumerated powers in Section 8, you’ll see the areas where Congress has the right to make laws. You get a very clear view that the Founding Fathers wanted very firm limits on the central government.

Those “enumerated powers” include fewer than 20 specific items, such as “coin money” and “maintain a navy.”

There’s nothing in there about a Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nothing about Medicaid.

And, notwithstanding the elastic anti-constitutional gymnastics of Chief Justice John Roberts, nothing about mandating the purchase of government-approved health insurance.

To be fair, there’s a tiny sliver of truth to Congressman Nadler’s argument.

Compared to the Articles of Confederation (in effect from 1781-1789), the Constitution did give more power to the central government.

But that simply meant that the central government had a very small amount of power compared to a tiny amount of power.

Since I’m a thoughtful and helpful guy, here’s something I created to help Congressman Nadler understand constitutional restraints on the power of government.

This is just a back-of-the-envelope estimate, so I openly admit that I don’t know where to place the current system on this spectrum. We’ve unfortunately traveled a long way on the path to untrammeled majoritarianism in the United States. But voters and politicians haven’t chosen to translate their ability into an all-powerful central government.

In other words, majoritarianism can lead to pervasive statism (i.e., voluntarily electing a communist or fascist government).

But there also are majoritarian systems such as Switzerland where people vote to limit government.

Likewise, monarchies can be benign, such as in the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. Or they can be forms of absolute rule akin to communism and fascism.

For purposes of today’s discussion, though, all that really matters is that both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were explicitly designed to limit the powers of the central government.

And while it may upset people in Washington, that means the federal government should be much smaller than it is today. Not only fewer departments, agencies, and programs, but also no involvement in underwear, college football, Major League Baseball, condoms, birth control, or the National Football League.

P.S. Yes, the 16th Amendment (sadly) gave Congress broad powers to tax, but that’s not the same as giving the federal government broad powers to spend.

P.P.S. Republicans have actually endorsed language implying that most of the federal government should be dismantled. I wish they were serious.

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The American economy is in the doldrums. And has been for most this century thanks to bad policy under both Obama and Bush.

So what’s needed to boost growth and create jobs? A new video from Learn Liberty, narrated by Professor Don Boudreaux (who also was the narrator for Learn Liberty’s superb video on free trade vs. protectionism), examines how to get more people employed.

A very good video. There are three things that grabbed my attention.

First, there’s a very fair compilation of various unemployment/labor force statistics. Viewers can see the good news (a relatively low official unemployment rate) and the bad news (a lowest-in-decades level of labor force participation)

Second, so-called stimulus packages don’t make sense. Yes, some people wind up with more money and jobs when politicians increase spending, but only at the expense of other people who have less money and fewer jobs. Moreover, Don correctly notes that this process of redistribution facilitates cronyism (the focus of another Learn Liberty video) and corruption in Washington (an issue I’ve addressed in one of my videos).

Third, free markets and entrepreneurship are the best routes for more job creation. And that requires less government. Don also correctly condemns occupational licensing rules that make it very difficult for people to get jobs or create jobs in certain fields.

The entire video was very concise, lasting less than four minutes, so it only scratched the surface. For those seeking more information on the topic, I would add the following points.

  1. Businesses will never create jobs unless they expect that new employees will generate enough revenue to cover not only their wages, but also the cost of taxes, regulations, and mandates. This is why policies that sometimes sound nice (higher minimum wages, health insurance mandates, etc) actually are very harmful.
  2. Redistribution programs make leisure more attractive than labor. This is not only bad for the overall economy because of lower labor force participation. This is why policies that sometime sound nice (unemployment benefits, food stamps, health subsidies, etc) actually are very harmful.

Let’s augment Don’s video by looking at some excerpts from a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Marie-Joseé Kravis of the Hudson Institute.

In economics, as far back as Joseph Schumpeter, or even Karl Marx, we have known that the flow of business deaths and births affects the dynamism and growth of a country’s economy. Business deaths unlock resources that can be allocated to more productive use and business formation can boost innovation and economic and social mobility. For much of the nation’s history, this process of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” has spread prosperity throughout the U.S. and the world. Over the past 30 years, however, with the exception of the mid-1980s and the 2002-05 period, this dynamism has been waning. There has been a steady decline in business formation while the rate of business deaths has been more or less constant. Business deaths outnumber births for the first time since measurement of these indicators began.

Why has entrepreneurial dynamism slowed? What’s happened to the creative destruction described in a different Learn Liberty video?

Unsurprisingly, government bears a lot of the blame.

Many studies have also attributed the slow rate of business formation to the regulatory fervor of the past decade. …in a 2010 report for the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration, researchers at Lafayette University found that the per employee cost of federal regulatory compliance was $10,585 for businesses with 19 or fewer employees.

Wow, that’s a powerful real-world example of how all the feel-good legislation and red tape from Washington creates a giant barrier to job creation.

And it’s worth noting that low-skilled people are the first ones to lose out.

P.S. My favorite Learn Liberty video explains how government subsidies for higher education have resulted in higher costs for students, a lesson that Hillary Clinton obviously hasn’t learned.

P.P.S. Perhaps the most underappreciated Learn Liberty video explains why the rule of law is critical for a productive society. Though the one on the importance of the price system also needs more attention.

P.P.P.S. And I’m a big fan of the Learn Liberty videos on the Great Depression, central banking, government spending, and the Drug War. And the videos on myths of capitalism, the miracle of modern prosperity, and the legality of Obamacare also should be shared widely.

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Japan is the poster child for Keynesian economics.

Ever since a bubble popped about 25 years ago, Japanese politician have adopted one so-called stimulus scheme after another.

Lots of additional government spending. Plenty of gimmicky tax cuts. All of which were designed according to the Keynesian theory that presumes that governments should borrow money and somehow get those funds into people’s pockets so they can buy things and supposedly jump-start the economy.

Japanese politicians were extraordinarily successful, at least at borrowing money. Government debt has quadrupled, jumping to way-beyond-Greece levels of about 250 percent of economic output.

But all this Keynesian stimulus hasn’t helped growth.

The lost decade of the 1990s turned into another lost decade and now the nation is mired in another lost decade. This chart from the Heritage Foundation tells you everything you need to know about what happens when a country listens to people like Paul Krugman.

But it’s not just Paul Krugman cheering Japan’s Keynesian splurge.

The dumpster fire otherwise known as the International Monetary Fund has looked at the disaster of the past twenty-five years and decided that Japan needs more of the same.

I’m not joking.

The Financial Times reports on the latest episode of this Keynesian farce, aided and abetted by the hacks at the IMF.

Japan must redouble economic stimulus…the International Monetary Fund has warned in a tough verdict on the world’s third-largest economy. Prime minister Shinzo Abe needs to “reload” his Abenomics programme with an incomes policy to drive up wages, on top of monetary and fiscal stimulus, the IMF said after its annual mission to Tokyo. …David Lipton, the IMF’s number two official, in an interview with the Financial Times…argued that Japan should adopt an incomes policy, where employers — including the government — would raise wages by 3 per cent a year, with tax incentives and a “comply or explain” mechanism to back it up. …Mr Lipton and the IMF gave a broad endorsement to negative interest rates. The BoJ sparked a political backlash when it cut rates to minus 0.1 per cent in January.

Wow.

Some people thought I was being harsh when I referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy.

I now feel that I should apologize to the now-departed suicide doctor.

After all, Dr. Kevorkian probably never did something as duplicitous as advising governments to boost tax burdens and then publishing a report to say that the subsequent economic damage was evidence against the free-market agenda.

P.S. The IMF is not the only international bureaucracy that is giving Japan bad advice. The OECD keeps advising the government to boost the value-added tax.

P.P.S. Japan’s government is sometimes so incompetent that it can’t even waste money successfully.

P.P.P.S. Though Japan does win the prize for the strangest government regulation.

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, here’s another example of the IMF in action. Sri Lanka’s economy is in trouble in part because of excessive government spending.

So the IMF naturally wants to do a bailout. But, as Reuters reports, the bureaucrats at the IMF want Sri Lanka to impose higher taxes.

Sri Lanka will raise its value added tax and reintroduce capital gains tax…ahead of talks on a $1.5-billion loan it is seeking from the International Monetary Fund. …The IMF has long called on Sri Lanka to…raise revenues… These are likely to be the main conditions for the grant of a loan, economists say.

P.P.P.P.P.S. On a separate topic, the British will have a chance to escape the European Union this Thursday.

I explained last week that Brexit would be economically beneficial to the United Kingdom, but independence also is a good idea simply because the European Commission and European Parliament (and other associated bureaucracies) are reprehensible rackets for the benefit of insiders.

In other words, Brussels is like Washington. Sort of a scam to transfer money from taxpayers to the elite.

Though I wonder whether the goodies for EU bureaucrats can possibly be as lavish as those provided to OECD employees. I don’t know if the bureaucrats at the OECD get free Viagra, but they pay zero income tax, which surely must be better than the special low tax rate that EU bureaucrats have arranged for themselves.

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There are many reasons why I don’t like the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international bureaucracy that ostensibly represents the developed world but in reality is controlled by European welfare states.

The main problem is that the OECD is financed by mostly left-leaning governments and supports policies that reflect the ideology of those governments. As such, the bureaucracy routinely advocates more statism. Oftentimes with shoddy and dishonest data manipulation.

Adding insult to injury, even though the US is only one of 34 member nations and even though OECD policies frequently are designed to undermine US competitiveness, American taxpayers finance the largest share of the organization’s lavish budget.

That bureaucracy’s new Economic Survey of the United States is a typical example of the OECD’s bias.

Here are the challenges identified by the bureaucrats and their recommendations. Since I’m a helpful person, I’ve added a column to summarize what the OECD is actually suggesting.

For those keeping score at home, the OECD is advocating 10 bad policies, one good policy, and has empty rhetoric on a few others.

I don’t like the support of Dodd-Frank and find it bizarre that the OECD wants to make women less attractive to employers, but the three most offensive and destructive recommendations are:

  1. The proposal for information exchange would make America less attractive for foreign investors.
  2. The proposal for a higher minimum wage would make it harder for low-skilled people to climb the economic ladder.
  3. The massive energy tax would be a heavy blow to American households.

By the way, my favorite part of the report is on page 29, where the OECD has a box showing “Past OECD recommendations on fiscal policy.” One of the recommendations from the 2014 survey was for the US to have more consumption taxation, which is their way of urging a value-added tax on top of the income tax. I’m glad to share that the OECD glumly reports that “No action taken.”

And I suppose it’s good news that the OECD didn’t even bother to include that recommendation this year, or any suggestions for higher income tax rates (though there are other suggestions to boost the overall tax burden).

My next favorite part of the report is where the OECD inadvertently showed that America’s more market-oriented (or less-statist) policies put us ahead of other member nations that generally have bigger burdens of government.

Yet notwithstanding the fact that Americans enjoy much higher living standards than people in nations with more government, the report is an awful compilation of statist proposals to make America more like France.

Which raises the important question of why American taxpayers are financing an organization that basically is a propaganda machine for Obama-style policies?

P.S. It’s possible that the IMF is even worse than the OECD. I confess I’m torn on which one deserves to be abolished first.

P.P.S. In the interest of fairness, the OECD isn’t always wrong. Its economists have concluded that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule.

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In America’s sprawling intelligence network, costing tens of billions of dollars, who got fired after the 9-11 terror attacks for failing to connect the dots?

Who in the military got fired after the Fort Hood terrorist attack for failing to connect the dots?

More recently, who in the FBI or Department of Homeland Security got fired after the San Bernardino terrorist attack for failing to connect the dots?

And who in the government will get fired after the Orlando terrorist massacre for failing to connect the dots?

If you answered “nobody” in response to all these questions, don’t expect special congratulations. Failure in government is both pervasive and without consequences, so any other answer would have required a degree of near-malicious naiveté normally found at Bernie Sanders’ rallies.

And there are lots of dots that should have been connected in Orlando.

Jim Geraghty of National Review gathered several examples.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

…on Sept. 11, 2001. As classmates looked on in shock, Mateen celebrated the terrorist attacks that day… At a barbecue in the spring of 2007, Mateen…told the class he ought to kill all of them…

The Daily Beast reports:

Mateen first came to the FBI’s attention in May 2013, after making a series of “boasts” to co-workers about his various ties to terrorist groups

The Miami Herald reports:

The Islamic Center was also attended on occasion by Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who is believed to be the first American suicide bomber in Syria.

And here’s what CNN has reported:

…he was a security guard at the St. Lucie County Courthouse, often manning the metal detectors at the front of the building.Sheriff Ken Mascara said that in 2013 his staff requested Mateen be transferred from the courthouse because he made inflammatory comments. Mateen’s supervisor notified federal agents, after which, the sheriff said, the FBI investigated the guard.

And here is some amazing evidence from a report by Fox2:

A Florida gun store owner says his employees refused to sell to the Orlando nightclub gunman before the attack. The Florida gun store owner noticed several red flags right away — and alerted the FBI. But, there was never an investigation, and Omar Mateen slipped through the cracks.

It may turn out, of course, that some of these reports are wrong. But most of them, if not all of them, are presumably accurate.

Yet the hordes of paper pushers in the federal government decided that this dirtbag didn’t belong on the no-fly list (though somehow the feds decided an eight-year old cub scout shouldn’t be on planes)?!?

And the bureaucrats didn’t think additional investigations of Mateen were warranted given all the above information, which they had before the attack?

I realize I’m venting because of my anger at the senseless slaughter. Yes, I admit that even an efficient government isn’t going to be able to stop all terrorism. And maybe our government quietly thwarts many attacks and actually does a lot better job than we realize.

But in this case and others, mistakes obviously were made. Shouldn’t there be any consequences for that incompetence?

By the way, other governments are equally feckless. If you recall the terrorist bombing of the Brussels Airport, the Belgian government demonstrated unbelievable and near-malignant levels of stupidity.

The Daily Caller has some of the disturbing details.

Turkey detained one of the Brussels suicide bombers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, in June 2015 on charges of being a foreign fighter. …Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Belgium ignored Turkey’s “warning that this person is a foreign fighter.” …Erdogan said…“We reported the deportation to the Belgian Embassy in Ankara on July 14, 2015, but he was later set free.” …El-Bakraoui, 30, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2010 for a shootout with police officers. He was released early but subsequently violated his parole and was supposed to be back in prison.

Wow, this is like a perfect storm of government incompetence. First, the Belgian government is told the guy is a foreign fighter in Syria. Second, the Belgian government knew he was a bad guy. Third, they let him out of jail early. And fourth, he violated the conditions of his parole but wasn’t thrown back in jail.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is the same nation where an official claimed that it was difficult to fight terrorism because of “the small size of the Belgian government” even though the public sector in that country consumes a greater share of economic output than it does even in Italy and Sweden.

So what’s the moral of the story?

There are three. First, the federal government has become such a sprawling and bloated mess that incompetence seems inevitable.

And it doesn’t matter whether it’s on purpose or by accident. We have a government that does a bad job, even when we want good performance.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2014.

There are some legitimate functions of government and I want those to be handled efficiently. But I worry that effective government is increasingly unlikely because politicians are so busy intervening in areas that should be left to families, civil society, and the private sector.

Mark Steyn made the same point in a much more amusing fashion.

But there’s a second point that needs to be made about the lack of consequences.

If nobody is ever fired for mistakes, it’s obviously much harder to get good performance. The success of any organization depends in part on the carrots and sticks that are employed.

But in the federal government, there are no sticks.

Heck, you can let veterans die by putting them on secret waiting lists and then get awarded bonuses.

From the perspective of bureaucrats, this is a win-win situation. If you do something bad, there are no consequences.

And if you allow something bad, there are no consequences.

For the third and final point, I’m going to partially absolve bureaucrats because some of the problem is the result of politicians misallocating law-enforcement resources.

Think of all the money, time, energy and manpower that is squandered for the War on Drugs. Wouldn’t it be better if the crowd in Washington shifted those resources to stopping people who want to kill us?

And what about the multi-billion cost of anti-money laundering laws. For all intents and purposes, the government is requiring banks to spy on everybody, which results in a haystack of information, thus making it impossible for law enforcement to find any needles. Call me crazy, I’d rather have law enforcement concentrate on actual criminals.

I’m not expecting perfection from Washington. Or even great performance. But it sure would be nice if the government was semi-effective.

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Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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